Imagine waking up in the middle of the night and feeling shocked by the quiet and the dark, startled by your own inactivity, upset about all that you were not doing and experiencing: not having fun, not working, not socializing, not eating, not seeing or hearing anything interesting, not making any kind of progress.

If you were to express this sense of bewilderment, anyone would say: “Haven’t you heard of sleep? It’s bedtime. You’re not supposed to be doing anything right now.”

We’re so used to the concept of sleep that we take it for granted. We expect that activity should come in a cycle. During the day, we’re busy, we make noise; at night, we’re quiet, we rest. If we wake up in the middle of the night, we try to get back to sleep. We’re so accustomed to this cycle that we feel upset when it doesn’t play out as it’s supposed to.

Other things in life are cyclic, just like sleep. But the cyclicity of a cyclic thing can be hard to recognize. That’s especially so when the peaks and troughs are irregular and unpredictable — when they don’t follow a neat daily pattern, when the troughs don’t have special names like “sleep,” when there’s no culture or tradition surrounding those troughs, when there are no dedicated rooms in the house — like bedrooms, with specialized equipment such as mattresses, pillows, and blankets — where we ceremonially pass through those troughs.

Inspiration comes in a cycle. Fun comes in a cycle. Productivity comes in a cycle. Delight comes in a cycle. Interpersonal harmony comes in a cycle. Fortune comes in a cycle. The stock market comes in a cycle. But the troughs of those cycles don’t have rooms in the house that are made for experiencing them.

When we reach a trough in any of these domains, we tend to think something’s wrong. We don’t see the trough as a natural, necessary, and inevitable part of a cyclic phenomenon. We see it as an aberration. It’s a pit we’ve fallen into by accident. It’s a hole we’ve got to climb out of.

If we’re feeling lousy, we wonder: What might have happened that put us in this bad mood? What factors could be causing us to feel so bored, uninspired, sluggish, or sad?

When we’re low, we try to diagnose and cure our lowness, just as if we’d risen in the middle of the night and started questioning why we had gotten so tired that we needed to sleep at 3am? What aberration compelled us to enter this dark room and crawl under the covers and close our eyes? What would cure our fatigue, right now, at 3am? What would energize us, what would help us spring back into action?

When we’re low, we wonder: how can we escape this low? How can jump back into activity? How can we return to feeling enthusiastic again? How can we promptly restore our energy or our happiness?

If we can’t immediately solve the problem and get out of the trough, we feel frustrated with our powerlessness: not only did we fall into a trap, but we failed to pull ourselves out.

This is where the idea of cyclicity can help.

A few years ago, I invested some money in a certain stock sector. My investment quickly rose in value and I felt smart; a year later, it plummeted, and I felt stupid.

What had I done wrong? Nothing. And nothing was more comforting than to hear the pundits say that this particular sector was experiencing a cyclic downturn. The idea of a cyclic downturn was comforting because it meant that what happened had been unavoidable, and that it wouldn’t be permanent.

There are cyclic downturns in every area of life. You can try to explain them and figure out why they happened at a particular time, but you can’t do anything about them and you shouldn’t try. Think of it like this: the downturn is a kind of sleep. Let the sleep follow its course. Let the cycle play out.

When you’re experiencing a low of any sort, visualize a graph, a wavy line with ups and downs, including your current low. The long line descends to form the trough where you feel stuck right now. But you’re not stuck, you’re sleeping, and the line rises again. Spending some time in the trough is what helps you build the charge to ascend to the next peak. The line has a spring-like action that’s going to lift you up again.

The cycle might be irregular and messy — it doesn’t have the familiarity and rhythmic predictability of sleep. But it still behaves like sleep. Resting now is what prepares you for your next phase of activity. The best thing you can do is to let the rest be restful. Don’t fight it. ■

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